Monday Matters (August 8, 2022)

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O, what peace we often forfeit.
O, what needless pain we bear.
All because we do not carry.
Everything to God in prayer.
-From the hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus”

 

The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.
-Soren Kierkegaard

 

“Help” is a prayer that is always answered. It doesn’t matter how you pray–with your head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief, or dancing. Churches are good for prayer, but so are garages and cars and mountains and showers and dance floors. Years ago I wrote an essay that began, “Some people think that God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom.”
-Anne Lamott

 

Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?
-Corrie Ten Boom

Take it to the Lord in prayer

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
-Matthew 7:7,8

Truth be told, the longer I’m at this business of faith exploration, the more mysterious prayer seems to me. I so appreciate that the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, They needed help. Me too.

I feel like I spend a fair amount of time praying, or at least trying to clear my monkey mind so that I can pray. Truth be told, I know I’m often just mulling things over in my mind, a conversation with myself. I sometimes wonder if my prayers go higher than the ceiling. I can forget that my prayers are addressed to someone.

For that reason, I’m grateful for teachers like Thomas Keating, a monk and priest who helped people focus on centering prayer in a world that is definitely off kilter. He spoke of the importance of the contemplative life, of a prayer life, of placing one’s self in the presence of God. Keating cited St. Teresa of Avila who wrote: “All difficulties in prayer can be traced to one cause: praying as if God were absent.” Keating adds: “This is the conviction that we bring with us from early childhood and apply to everyday life and to our lives in general. It gets stronger as we grow up, unless we are touched by the Gospel and begin the spiritual journey. This journey is a process of dismantling the monumental illusion that God is distant or absent.”

From another branch of Christendom, I’m mindful of the hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus.” It talks about taking it to the Lord in prayer, about the peace we often forfeit because we don’t pray.

Jesus not only taught about prayer, how to do it and how not to do it. (We saw that early in the Sermon on the Mount.) He also modeled a life of prayer by stealing off for times of quiet conversation with God, the one he called Abba or Father, especially at key moments like the night before he called disciples and the night before he was put on trial.

One could easily interpret the teaching on prayer in today’s verses to say that we will get whatever we want, that prayer is like a blank check or three wishes from Aladdin’s lamp. Prayers are not like calling DoorDash and getting a delivery of what you want. God is not valet. But prayer does have the power to change us. And it can change the world.

What I’ve come to love about the people who have taught me about prayer (Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr) is that their focus on contemplation, on a life of prayer, on attentiveness to God’s voice in no way ignores the problems of the world and things that need to get done, the healing that needs to happen. It’s neither pie in the sky, nor retreat.

Rather, the contemplative focus equips people to contribute to the transformation of our world. I think of how Martin Luther King insisted that those participating in demonstrations have daily prayer and bible reading, When John Lewis was attacked on that bridge in Alabama, getting in good trouble, he had a backpack that included the Bible and a book of meditations by Howard Thurman.

So I’m thinking that when we pray, we place ourselves in God’s presence. We may not get what we ask for, which in many cases is a blessing. But we will be changed. Doors will be opened. And we will be brought into a new relationship with God, neighbor and even self. And by amazing grace, our world will be changed.

-Jay Sidebotham


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Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
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Monday Matters (August 1, 2022)

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Luke 10:1-12

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way; I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if a person of peace is there, your peace will rest on that person, but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.

Pigs and pearls and us

Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.
-Matthew 7:6

Today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount offers some tough talk from Jesus. His colorful language suggests that the lives of disciples unfold in the presence of opposition, resistance or indifference, perpetrated by folks compared to dogs and swine. Have you ever felt like that is what you’re up against?

Jesus makes the point that as the disciples live in the world, as they offer what they have as followers of Jesus, as they share what they consider to be good news, they may not be well received, to put it mildly. It echoes what Jesus says when he sends out his disciples (see above). He tells them to extend peace to communities they visit. If their word of peace is accepted, awesome! If that peace is not accepted, move on. Shake the dust off of feet. Don’t try to compel agreement. Ah, if only the church throughout its history had bought this idea.

So today we read about pearls before swine. The pigs simply don’t recognize the value of the pearls. Holy gifts to dogs. All the dogs know how to do is fight.

What does this say to us this morning? We’re living in rancorous days. I don’t remember a time when people would say I can’t go on vacation or have dinner with family or friends because they watch a different cable news show or embrace a different candidate. Courtesy of television and social media, we retreat to communities of affirmation and agreement. We navigate parallel universes, with completely different perspectives, and facts which we pick and choose. Given all that, how do we move forward?

First, Jesus tells his disciples (us) that they (we) are not always going to be well received, as much as we people-pleasing clergy would like for that to happen. So let that go.

Second, Jesus suggests that we may not find ourselves able to change other people’s minds. Beyond that, it suggests that that is not our job. We are not the ones who can cause folks to value what they don’t value. Changing people’s hearts and minds is God’s work, not our own. Posting on social media may be fun, even delicious, but all we are called to do is be faithful. We can indeed be instruments in transformation, but when that happens, it most likely happens through the witness of our lives and not our compelling arguments.

Third, for me it’s a call to humility accompanied by trust that God is in charge. We are not in charge, and we are especially not in charge of what other people think. We have a gracious plenty tending to our own thought processes, our own opinions.

Which makes me wonder about Jesus’ instructions. I’ve always read it as faithful disciples meeting faithless pagans. I’ve always placed myself in the faithful disciple camp. But as I thought about this, I wondered how I’m like those swine, not even noticing pearls set in front of me. I wondered how I might be like those dogs, eager to tear somebody else apart, even if only in my imagination. Do I really value the pearls of God’s grace set before me, the limitless forgiveness, the beauty of nature? Do I growl too much? How might the change come to me, or am I stuck in the pig sty of my own focus, my own agenda, my own resentment that keeps me from recognizing pearls?

It may be helpful to recall a time when pearls were presented to you and you changed your mind. I’m old enough to recall when women were first ordained to the priesthood in the church. I remember conversations with people who thought that the ordination of women was a bad idea. But something amazing happened. People changed their minds, not because they were argued into it, but because they began to see women function in the role of priest. I remember someone saying: “I’m not in favor of women’s ordination, but our parish priest (a woman) is awesome. I’m so glad she is leading our church. I’m so glad she was ordained.”

Maybe that person could have been argued into acceptance of what I thought was a grand idea. But what changed that person’s mind was a relationship, witnessing a faithful and loving ministry. Maybe that’s all we can do, all we are called to do. Be faithful in our witness to good news. Share the grace we’ve come to know. And let the Holy Spirit handle the rest.

I so look forward to the day when I will be able to do that.

-Jay Sidebotham


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RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
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Monday Matters (July 25, 2022)

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O Dear Lord,
three things I pray:
to see you more clearly,
to love you more dearly
and follow you more nearly,
day by day.

More thoughts on pride from C.S.Lewis:

 

Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.

When man comes into the presence of God he will find, whether he wishes it or not, that all those things which seemed to make him so different from the men of other times, or even from his earlier self, have fallen off. He is back where he always was, where every man always is.

The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility…Accord-ing to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”

Logjam

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
-Matthew 7:3-5

In 1970, Sesame Street recycled an old joke. Bert approaches Ernie who appears on screen with a banana in his ear. Bert says: You have a banana in your ear. Ernie doesn’t respond. Bert repeats: You have a banana in your ear. Nothing from Ernie. Bert finally gets Ernie’s attention, again tells him that he has a banana in his ear. Ernie says: I can’t hear you. I have a banana in my ear.

I wonder if Sesame Street writers had read today’s verse from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus presents his own funny image, one that might lend itself to cartoon. Someone with a log in their eye is trying to fine tune a speck in somebody else’s eye. The log-blinded person seems clueless about what is getting in the way of clear vision, kind of like that Muppet with a banana in his ear.

It’s a reminder of how many times in the gospels Jesus addresses blindness. His many healings of physical blindness provided a way of saying that folks can be blind in other ways as well, blind spiritually, blind in the ways we regard God and each other, blind to the needs of a broken world. That condition seems especially true for really religious folks, the good church-goers of Jesus’ day. Maybe even clergy.

Jesus speaks of hypocrites, which reminds me of what some people have said when I ask if they are part of a church. People will sometimes say that they don’t go to church because it’s just full of hypocrites. To which I can only respond: Guilty as charged. So what’s the answer? What are we to do?

An ancient prayer which became popular in the musical GODSPELL (see above) asked that among other things we would see more clearly. In today’s passage, it seems that if we wish to come to clarity, we need help to make that happen.

And we’ve got work to do on ourselves. The work on ourselves (with a metaphorical log blocking our own vision) can be a lot more extensive than the work we imagine other people need to do (a speck of dust blocking theirs).

I found myself wondering what the log-in-the-eye represents. What is the thing, the big thing, that keeps me from seeing clearly? If I had to boil it down to one thing, I guess it would be the sin of pride. C.S.Lewis wrote a lot about pride and how it blocks vision. He said: A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.

He continues: There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit.

Lewis says that the opposite virtue is humility, which may suggest that the pathway of humility is the key to log removal. Tim Keller, in his book The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness, speaks of gospel-humility. Its essence is “not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less. Gospel-humility is not needing to think about myself. Not needing to connect things with myself. It is an end to thoughts such as, ‘I’m in this room with these people, does that make me look good? Do I want to be here?’ True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness. The blessed rest that only self-forgetfulness brings.”

We come to this gospel-humility in a number of ways. Worship helps, a way of seeing that our lives unfold in the presence of a power greater than our own. Gratitude helps, a way of seeing that we are on the receiving end of grace, that goodness comes to us not because we’re so magnificent, but because God is. Service helps, a way of seeing that we are connected to each other. Prayer (especially confession) helps, a way of seeing that we don’t always get it right, but that help is available. All of those things help with log-removal. All so we can see more clearly. And love more dearly. And follow more nearly. Day by day.

-Jay Sidebotham


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RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
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Monday Matters (July 18, 2022)

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Psalm 37:1-10

Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.
Trust in the Lord and do good; live in the land and enjoy security.
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices.
Refrain from anger and forsake wrath. Do not fret—it leads only to evil.
For the wicked shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.

Judgement Day

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For the judgment you give will be the judgment you get, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. –
-Matthew 7:1,2

From a column that appeared on July 8 in the NY TIMES, a guest essay by Anne Lamott on the subject of prayer, as a reflection of her relationship with God:

I will have horrible thoughts about others, typically the Christian right or the Supreme Court, or someone who has seriously crossed me, whose hair I pray falls out or whose book fails. I say to God, as I do every Sunday in confession: “Look — I think we can both see what we have on our hands here. Help me not be such a pill.” It is miserable to be a hater. I pray to be more like Jesus with his crazy compassion and reckless love. Some days go better than others. I pray to remember that God loves Marjorie Taylor Greene exactly the same as God loves my grandson, because God loves, period. God does not have an app for Not Love. God sees beyond each person’s awfulness to each person’s needs. God loves them, as is. God is better at this than I am.

Anne Lamott has also noted that the difference between you and God is that God doesn’t think He’s you. All of which brings us to Jesus’ wisdom in today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount. Apparently knowing us quite well, he speaks about the ways we judge others. We obviously make many judgments on any given day. We have to make decisions. I don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about.

So what do you think he’s after in this passage? What does it say about us when we judge others? What does it say about those others whoever they may be, i.e., the people we judge? What does it say about what we think about God?

Take them in order. First, what does our propensity for judgment say about us? Have you ever heard someone say: Who am I to judge? It’s a little like someone saying: Bless your heart. There’s always more behind the statement. Who am I to judge, but let me tell you why I think that person is off track. Let me tell you why God should be upset with that person. There’s a gracious dose of hubris implicit in judging. It suggests we see ourselves doing God’s job for God. Here’s the problem: We don’t know as much as God knows. We don’t love as much as God loves.

Then what does it say about how we regard others? What does it mean if we find ourselves passing judgment on others? It can only mean that we think on some deeper level that we are better than those people, a particular temptation for religious folks. It can’t help but bring division. Jesus suggests that the spirit that inclines us to judge others will come back to bite us. The judgment we give will be the judgment we receive. If that’s the field we choose to play on, we will undoubtedly get smacked with judgment ourselves.

Truth be told, it seems that judging other people probably does little to change other people. Have you ever really “won” a political argument or made headway on social media? All that that kind of judgment does is damage community. Once we get into the mode of judging, it can be hard to know where to stop. Pretty soon, we’ve ended up judging everyone around us.

I recognize in myself a potent judgmental streak. I think about where that comes from. I can get really judgmental about the people and communities and ways of thinking that made me judgmental. Talk about a loop! As Anne Lamott prays: Help me not be such a pill.

Finally, what does our judgment say about how we regard God? It implies that God is not up to the task, that God can’t be trusted to be the ultimate judge, that maybe we know better than God does. It implies that we think that the unconditional forgiveness at the heart of the gospel is not really all that unconditional, that it depends on our own judgments, that we become final arbiter in some way.

So what do we do? We recognize we’re all in this together, that every one of us could be judged, that every one of us needs mercy. We each and all need to be given a break. On a regular basis, it helps to give thanks that mercy has come our way. It can be work, it can involve discipline to do that, but it’s worth the trip, even though it’s much more delicious to judge. But as noted, while I’m actually quite judgmental, I have a sense that if I could stop or curtail judgment, I would enjoy life more. I would enjoy relationships more. I would experience greater freedom. I’d be less of a pill.

Psalm 37 has been a help to me in moments when I feel inclined to judge. Portions of that psalm appear above. When I get on my high horse, it helps to turn it over to God, remembering the psalmist’s call, the warning to refrain from fretting about others. It leads only to evil.

-Jay Sidebotham


Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (July 11, 2022)

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Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation
-St. Paul, II Corinthians 6.2

 

In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.
-Henry David Thoreau

 

Tomorrow is tomorrow. Future cares have future cures. And we must mind today.
-Sophocles, Antigone

 

Every instant of our lives is essentially irreplaceable: you must know this in order to concentrate on life.
-Andre Gide

 

We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching.

 

Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.
-Blaise Pascal, Pensees

 

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
-Annie Dillard

On this day the Lord has acted. We will rejoice and be glad in it.
-Psalm 118:24

Now

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
-Matthew 6: 34

In a time in which change swirls around us, as institutions and norms we once thought immovable begin to shift, it’s comforting to know one thing that remains constant: 8am worship in Episcopal churches. From week to week, decade to decade, in some places generation to generation, same folks, same pews, same words.

I had my own taste of such immutability at my church in Chicago. An elderly parishioner attended our 8am service every week. Every week. If she wasn’t there, I knew she was ill and I would call her. Each and every Sunday, this 90 year old woman would greet me at the door after the service with these words: “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is mystery. Today is a gift, which is why we call it the present.” I think she wanted to make sure I got the message. While it may have the scent of Hallmark card, I took it to heart, as reflective of the wisdom in today’s verse from the Sermon on the Mount.

It’s the wisdom of the recovery movement that encourages people to live a day at a time. It’s the wisdom of the practice of yoga, in which one steps on a mat and suspends reflection on the past or plans for the future, an exercise in being present.

It is not easy to live each day at a time. We find ourselves caught between the what-ifs of our past, and the what-ifs of our future. It takes faith to focus on what is set before us in the present, to see the ways we can be faithful in each and every moment. My brain (a.k.a., my monkey mind) is often hijacked by regrets over the past or anxiety about the future. That keeps me from attending to what is right in front of me. It takes faith to give thanks for the gift of each day, to see each day, even stormy days, as loaded with possibility, as a stage set for God’s work in me and among us, as the very next immediate concrete way to follow Jesus.

When I find it challenging, I think back on an ecumenical service I would lead on a regular basis at a nursing home. Some people could make their way to the chapel without assistance. Others arrived in wheelchairs. A few reclined on gurneys, unable to move their bodies. Some were alert and attentive to my insightful homilies. Others snored. While the liturgy was sort of generically protestant to accommodate the crowd, we always ended with this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer:

This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.

If those folks could pray for the day, taking it as it comes, a day at a time, I was inspired to do the same. I’m especially taken by the phrase that calls us to face each day gallantly. Monday, July 11. You are given this day. How will you live into it most fully, most faithfully, most joyfully, most courageously? How will you do so gallantly?

I close with wisdom from Annie Dillard. She reflects on writing, but what she has to say applies to the daily writing of the story of our lives:

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

Have a blessed day.

-Jay Sidebotham


Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (July 4, 2022)

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Selections from the readings chosen by the church for the observance of Independence Day:

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.
-Deuteronomy 10:18

 

The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness.
The Lord is loving to everyone and his compassion is over all his works.
-Psalm 145:8,9

 

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
-Hebrews 11:16

 

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
-Matthew 5:43-45

Happy Fourth of July

Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the gentiles who seek all these things, and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
-Matthew 6: 31-33

As we observe Independence Day, a celebration of our nation, we coincidentally arrive at the point in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus asks us to think about the kingdom we seek. His teaching implies that there might be several kingdoms calling to us at once, grabbing hold of us, pulling us in different directions. Ever feel that way?

Apparently aware of these forces, Jesus tells his disciples to put first things. Keep the main thing the main thing. Seek first the kingdom. So I’m wondering for starters how the image of the kingdom of God strikes you. Is it something from another time and place? Does it help to speak about the Rule or Sovereignty or Reign of God? In my mind, we’re talking about a sphere of influence. That place where God’s graceful intention for all of creation is fulfilled. It’s the fulfillment of that line in the Lord’s Prayer that says “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s why the gospels seem to regard the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God as interchangeable.

I found myself thinking about the kingdoms calling to me these days. Where am I giving my heart? What sphere of influence holds sway over me? The empire of our work and vocation, our family relationships and commitments, our sense of achievement and worth? On this holiday, there is certainly the kingdom represented by our national identification, love expressed in patriotism. That can be a beautiful thing, a cause for celebration and gratitude on a day like today. There’s much to be thankful for this day.

But I’m still processing the images of insurrectionists carrying Christian images into the Capitol on January 6, self-proclaimed patriots leading prayers and toting Bibles as the Capitol was stormed. Russell Moore, president of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that when he saw a “Jesus Saves” sign displayed near a gallows built by rioters, “I was enraged to a degree that I haven’t been enraged in memory. This is not only dangerous and unpatriotic but also blasphemous, presenting a picture of the gospel of Jesus Christ that isn’t the gospel of Jesus Christ and is instead its exact reverse.”

Years ago, Upton Sinclair said: When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. Recent developments in our civic life make me realize the perilous persistence of the conflation of nationalism and American Christianity. It underscores the importance of saying Jesus is Lord instead of saying Caesar is Lord (Caesar or his modern counterparts).

And what kind of Lord is Jesus? He is that Lord who came to serve and not be served (Mark 10:45). He came to tear down dividing walls not build them (Ephesians 2:14). He came to stretch out arms of love so that in him there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3:28).

With that in mind, how do we as people of faith keep first things first, especially on this holiday. Start, as always, with prayer. Independence Day is a liturgical feast, as we pray that God will bless America, as we give thanks for so many blessings. We also ask, in the words of a national hymn, that God will mend our every flaw. There’s ample room for that kind of healing work.

And then we consider the various kingdoms that lay claim on us, and seek to have them align with the Kingdom of God. By holy coincidence, readings chosen by our church for Independence Day (excerpts in the column on the left) give wonderful insight into what the Kingdom of God might look like here on earth. When partisanship heightens our emotions, we hear Jesus speak of a kingdom marked by love of enemies. When we may be led to believe that our kingdom needs to be defined by who is not in it, we hear from the Hebrew Scriptures that we are to welcome the stranger. When we feel disconnected from others, we hear a call to compassion. We read from the letter to the Hebrews about the great characters of the Old Testament. They longed for a better country. All of those are ways to seek God’s kingdom first. Jesus promises that if we do that, the rest will fall in place.

Perhaps the hope for our nation in troubled times is to seek first the kingdom of God. Let us pray in word and action for that. Maybe it’s the hope for each one of us as individuals as well. Take this week to think about what it means for you to put first things first.

-Jay Sidebotham


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RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
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Monday Matters (June 27, 2022)

3-1
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

-Isaiah 52.7

 

O heavenly Father, who hast filled the world with beauty: Open our eyes to behold thy gracious hand in all thy works; that, rejoicing in thy whole creation, we may learn to serve thee with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies, for the love which from our birth, over and around us lies. Christ our Lord, to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise.

 

Do you want to do something beautiful for God? There is a person who needs you. This is your chance.
There is a thing you can do but I can not and there is a thing I can but you can not; so let us make something beautiful for God.
-Mother Teresa

Being considerate

And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
-Matthew 6: 27-30

Consider the lilies, with the glory they effortlessly show. This bit of wisdom is a whole lot more than simply stopping to smell the roses (although that’s an excellent thing to do). In the call to consider the lilies, we’re asked to learn from them, to gain wisdom from them, to imitate them. It’s a call to notice beauty and to celebrate it.

First, we notice beauty as gift. As the collect above indicates, God has filled the world with beauty as an act of grace, one that helps us grasp a power greater than ourselves, one that reveals the holy character as loving attention, one that simply brings us joy. Beauty itself, clearly holy intention in creation, is also there to be our teacher. And so we hear the refrain from the psalm that we are to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Recognizing that holy beauty is indeed key to our worship.

Second, we notice beauty as lens. It provides a way to look at the world around us, appreciation of nature for sure. It also includes the ways we look at each other. I recently came across a photographic study which showed how people reacted when someone told them they were beautiful. Pre-comment, sullen. Post-comment, glowing. It struck me because I’m spending time on crowded subways these days. I have felt called to pay attention to other people in the car. I sometimes will get out my small sketch pad and draw them. Slightly risky, but it’s my way of considering the beauty in each person (not unlike the dignity in each person). Not because they are attractive in any movie star way, or because they are dressed particularly well, but simply because they are. They are beautiful.

Third, we notice beauty as offering. Note that the second prayer above talks about the gifts of musicians and artists who help us glimpse beauty. My own faith journey has been deeply shaped by those gifts as well as architectural beauty. I’m grateful for those who made that possible, for their offerings. Offerings of beauty are not only located in liturgy and sacred space. I’m mindful of the ministry of Mother Teresa who said that her life goal was to offer something beautiful for God. (As a work of art, her ministry was the moral equivalent of the Sistine Ceiling.) My offering will never rise to that level, but I appreciate her sense that we each and all can do something beautiful for God. She once described herself as a pencil in God’s hand, revealing her openness to God’s will for her life. Nice image.

Newsflash: There’s a whole lot these days in our world that is not beautiful. There’s a whole lot to make us worry. That’s why the call to consider beauty and upon consideration to extend it is so important. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, it takes faith to see the beautiful in our grace-starved world, a world that seems to grow more mean-spirited by the minute. It’s a world that can easily make us anxious, a world that can make us think we are not beautiful enough, that we need to work harder and longer and better to solve the things that cause us angst. Truth be told, that over-functioning will not ultimately do the trick. But it seems to me that Jesus is telling us that we can navigate the anxiety with an expression of gratitude and hope that beauty will grow.

We worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness in the conviction that God cares and God provides. Be on the lookout today for beauty. Don’t let the ugliness dominate us. Consider the lilies. Consider how your faith is deepened by attentiveness to that which is beautiful.

-Jay Sidebotham


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Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (June 20, 2022)

3-1
Why should I feel discouraged,
Why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely,
And long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion,
My constant friend is He;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.
I sing because I’m happy.
I sing because I’m free.
For His eye, his eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me

For the birds

Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
-Matthew 6: 26

I went to seminary well past adolescence, but you wouldn’t know it based on my behavior. In the most somber theology classes, I’d sit in the back row and as I took notes, would often draw cartoons in the margins, usually about my professors. Pretty soon, I was not alone in the back row, as peers would look over my shoulder and giggle. They were so immature.

Another antic grew from the time I spent in the impressive library at Union Seminary. I came across a book called “Bird Walk Through the Bible.” It detailed all the times birds were mentioned in scripture. I was so taken by this book that I figured out a way to include it in every bibliography in every paper I wrote. I remembered that significant theological opus as I read today’s verse from the Sermon on the Mount. When teachers would ask me why I included the book in my bibliography, I would refer them to Matthew 6.26. Clearly, Jesus thought that birds have something to teach us. What might that be?

Let me take a stab at it. Jesus seems to notice that the birds of the air don’t exhibit the kind of anxiety that human beings do. They rise above it. That carefree quality apparently has something to do with them knowing their value. They trust that God is providing for them. Thus they can get on with their high-flying lives. Jesus wonders: Aren’t we at least as valuable as those birds? Jesus asks us to think about our own value, our own worth.

How do people speak about their value? For many folks, knowing their value has to do with work, with compensation or title or positive feedback. For some, value comes from the possessions or investments or the zip code in which they reside. Some people derive a sense of value from their families, their parents or their children. In his book, The Tyranny of Merit, Michael J. Sandel notes how in our culture value is equated with level of education. Many people who embrace all kinds of disenfranchised groups are unkindly dismissive of those without college educations. Education as a value.

Even when we screw up, we are given opportunity to think about our value. Brene Brown frames it in terms of the difference between shame and guilt. She says that shame is a focus on self. Guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad” (i.e., of little value). Guilt is “I did something bad.” With guilt, there’s still a sense of value. We are redeemable.

Given all that, where do we as people of faith find value? What would it take for us to live with the carefree attitude of the birds of the air, in a time when the news can crank up anxiety in unprecedented ways? I suspect it comes with a sense of our identity as persons created in the image of God. It comes from our baptism, as we note in one of the baptismal promises that we are called to seek and serve Christ in all persons. That phrase “all persons” includes us. How do we embrace our value indicated by the belief that Christ is in each one of us? Another baptismal promise calls us to respect the dignity of every human being. How do we embrace that notion that each one of us is sealed with a God-given dignity?

Once we’ve wrapped our minds around that aspect of our value, we are then free to recognize the value in others. I’m aware in myself of the anxiety that can preclude a life lived in the freedom of the birds of the air. It comes from my need to establish myself as more valuable than somebody else. More valuable in the work place. More valuable in the family system. More valuable in the church (of all places).

Jesus says to let all that go and fly free, to remember who we are. A child of God. A friend of Jesus. A temple of the Holy Spirit. Maybe as much as we are called to remember who we are, we are called to remember whose we are. Again, in baptism, we say that the person being baptized is marked as Christ’s own forever. Now that’s value.

-Jay Sidebotham


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Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (June 13, 2022)

3-1
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall I correct it?

 

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

 

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

 

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

 

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body and went out into the morning,
and sang.

 

-Mary Oliver

Worry

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?
-Matthew 6: 25

Our musical stroll down memory lane continues. Last week, Bob Dylan: “You gotta serve somebody.” This week, Bobby McFerrin: “Don’t worry, be happy.” Great tune. But as life philosophy, does that work?

We come to a portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus reflects on anxiety, a recognition that it is part of the human experience, maybe especially for disciples. Jesus says: Do not worry about your life. Sometimes I think that’s all I do. I’m wondering, as I reflect on times when I’ve been gripped by worry, how helpful it is for Jesus to simply say: Do not worry.

Note that the verse begins with the word “therefore.” I’ve been told that whenever we see that word in scripture, we need to ask: What is the therefore there for? Well into the sermon, what have we heard that equips us for freedom from worry, from anxiety?

We heard the beatitudes, which tell us that even amid worrisome and challenging times, we can have a sense of blessed hope, the promise of the inheritance of God’s life. We’ve heard challenges to get clear about how we worship. Are we worried about what other people think of us? We’ve heard a call to seek God’s kingdom first, to have that as priority and trust that everything else (including our worries) will fall in place. We’ve heard calls to put trust in God, to live in closer relationship with God.

How can we exercise the kind of trust that allows us to live with less worry? When Jesus invites us to live free of worry, he doesn’t say that it will be easy. He does say that we will not be left alone. I don’t know about you, but I am well aware that I am unable to find freedom from worry on my own. I need help.

Which brings us to the message of this season. Coming off of the Feast of Pentecost, we learn that the Holy Spirit is sent to us, helping us address those things that make us anxious, those things that make us worry, those things that drive us nuts, those things that push our buttons, those things that cause us to fear. The Holy Spirit comes as paraclete, which literally means one who comes along side of us. The Holy Spirit comes as advocate, holy presence on our side, holy presence that has our back. The Holy Spirit comes as comforter, which implies that we need comfort. The Holy Spirit comes as guide and teacher, which implies that we need to be shown a way forward.

I’ve been thinking this week of ways that we can invite the Spirit’s help in all of this. I often find it helpful to look in the spiritual rear-view mirror and see the ways that God has acted in the past, even when I didn’t know it was happening. It provides a bit of a track record that helps me relax.

I sometimes find an attitude of gratitude can be helpful, counting blessings, recognizing that the things that keep me up at night are often problems I don’t really need to worry about.

I sometimes find it helpful to think of people who seem free of anxiety, folks who really have something to worry about, taking these folks as models. I think of the New Testament story of Paul and Silas singing hymns all night in prison. I think of the irrepressible joy of people like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, who each faced some of the greatest cruelty that human beings can dish out.

Finally, on days when I have a bit of perspective, I realize that there’s not a lot of productivity in worry, as I hear that life is more than food or clothing, or job title, or zip code, or investments, or reputation, or education, or great sermon review.

So perhaps the best way we can address worry is to say, to pray: Come, Holy Spirit. Try it when faced with worries great and small. Claim the power present along side of us, power around us as advocate, comforter and guide.

-Jay Sidebotham


Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.

Monday Matters (June 6, 2022)

3-1
You may be an ambassador to England or France.
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance.
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world.
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed.
You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

 

You may be a construction worker working on a home.
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome.
You might own guns and you might even own tanks.
You might be somebody’s landlord, you might even own banks.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody .
Yes, you’re gonna have to serve somebody .
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody .

 

You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride.
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side.
You may be workin’ in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair.
You may be somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Yes, you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

 

Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk.
Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk.
You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread.
You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king sized bed.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody yes indeed.
You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

-Bob Dylan

You gotta serve somebody

No one can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
-Matthew 6: 24

Robert Allen Zimmerman was born in Brooklyn on May 24, 1941. He grew up to be a singer and songwriter more commonly known as Bob Dylan. Of late, for health reasons, he’s been low-profile, but he has been a major figure in popular culture for more than 60 years, with songs that became anthems of the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960’s. Simple greatness, in my humble opinion.

As tends to be the case, a long life like his involved a number of stages. For Mr. Dylan, that included a season which began when he converted to an evangelical Christian faith. That experience resulted in the kind of fervor often found among new converts. It shaped his music in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. It won him a bunch of Grammys.

He produced several albums that reflected his new-found faith. One song in particular always strikes me when I run across the verses from the Sermon on the Mount before us this morning. The song’s refrain: You gotta serve somebody. The song has many stanzas. I’ve included just a few above. But I find myself this morning wondering if you think the premise is true. Do we really have to serve somebody?

A culture that celebrates the mythology of rugged individualism may not warm up to this idea. But let’s kick it around. Does everyone of us live our lives in service to someone or something? The list of potential masters, those people or things we serve, can be long. Purchased politicians bend to the will of those who donate the most money to their campaigns, even when it violates personal convictions or professions of faith. Clergy tailor homilies to avoid offending big donors, even if it mutes inspired voice. Teenagers twist themselves in knots to please the in-crowd, or to fulfill images media provides. (Newsflash: adults do that too.) We slavishly try to live up to expectations of parents, children, neighbors, employers, jumping through all kinds of hoops to get the nod.

To make it all the more complicated, we may find ourselves bifurcated or trifurcated or multifurcated (I’m making up words here) as we try to please the many voices calling to us at the same time. It can get tiring. It can be crazy making. In the end, it can prove to be unfulfilling.

Jesus knew this about us. His answer was simple. He said: Follow me. Stay close. Do what I call you to do. Do what I do. Love God and love neighbor. Put first things first. Seek first God’s kingdom and the rest will fall in place. That may mean that we recognize that we’re not in charge, often a painful realization for those of us who toy with the idea of being masters of our universe.

In the mystery of our faith, we discover our fullest, richest identity when we get the service piece down. Augustine captured that idea in his prayer which said that we serve Christ in whose service is perfect freedom. In other words, we find a life of freedom when we serve the one who came to serve. What does that look like in life?

With an eye on recent history, maybe it means choosing communal responsibility over independent rights, changing our thoughts on masks or guns or any other prerogative. Maybe it means listening more and opining less when we meet someone who disagrees with us. Maybe it means opening our eyes to those nearby and far away who might be hungry or homeless or lonely, and doing something about those desperate situations. Maybe it means looking around at those closest to us each morning and asking: How can I help you today?

We will always face multiple vocations. We go to work. We need money. We deal with expectations of others. We have aspirations. But perhaps we are being called to place all of those potential “masters” in the context of discipleship, i.e., the way we follow Jesus. What would it look like this week to take a step in that direction, to make that our goal?

-Jay Sidebotham


Thinking about joining the September 2022 RenewalWorks cohort?

Register by August 26th to join us.

RenewalWorks: Helping churches focus on spiritual growth

RenewalWorks is about re-orienting your parish around spiritual growth. And by spiritual growth – we mean growing in love of God and neighbor.
A cohort of churches is launching the process together this fall. If you’re interested in joining us for the September cohort, you can sign up now!
Learn more in our digital brochure.